Although our fortresses and monasteries defy it, Bhutan’s geography has determined its development activities. And for long, we have heard this rhetoric being used to rationalise underdevelopment in areas that are not in western Bhutan.
Tourism is one of those sectors that have been confined to the western dzongkhags. Poor road conditions to eastern dzongkhags compounded by weak marketing and limited infrastructure have kept eastern Bhutan away from the gaze and cameras of tourists. It is also for these reasons that we see most official events such as meetings and conferences held in western and southern Bhutan. While costs may be considered, our meetings are held far enough from the capital for participants to make their travel claims.
But this indicates how eastern Bhutan is rarely considered a destination for travel even for locals, let alone tourists. After being on the blind spot for years, there is now a proposal to promote tourism in the east. The recent decision to exempt the daily royalty of USD 65 a day for a tourist visiting the six eastern dzongkhags is good provided that the move doesn’t falter in its implementation.
This also offers an opportunity to engage local leaders and dzongkhag administrations in planning tourism products and services. The National Council observed lack of coordination and cooperation among agencies in the tourism sector when it called for a comprehensive tourism policy. We are yet to see a policy but the review revealed the institutional weakness at the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the sector’s apex institution. The lack of restroom facilities along the roads as noted by commuters, tourists and locals alike were enough to expose the Tourism Council’s weaknesses.
Among others, the decision to promote eastern Bhutan gives the Tourism Council a chance to prove its expertise in implementing ideas into action. It also challenges our consortium of tour operators to market the eastern dzongkhags and tap into their tourism opportunities across all areas, be it in terms of culture or nature. While the government had pledged to make 20 percent of the tourist visit eastern Bhutan by 2018, the association of tour operators had recommended the royalty waiver for tourists visiting the six eastern dzongkhags. To promote tourism, the government yesterday tabled a Bill to waive off the royalty until 2020.
The proposal is still on for deliberations and it is hoped that the National Assembly’s finance committee will consult all agencies, including local government leaders for feedback. In an industry where rampant undercutting is an open secret, there is a need to institute a mechanism to ensure that this waiver is not abused. We need to understand what promoting east means culturally and economically? The communities need to know the impact and objectives of such a move because promotion efforts often commodify culture and traditions.
Members from the Opposition have raised concerns about the implementation of such a move, pointing out that affordability is not an issue. The issue is infrastructure and that has been well acknowledged. Then why and how did the east get so left out? The Parliament members and tourism sector owe some answers to the people.